I think I should just admit, upfront, that this post is mostly just an excuse to shamelessly mention that I got to meet Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw on Friday night at the Edmonds International Film Festival.1
I met and chatted with them about the writerly craft, over a beer, and these two bestselling authors even indulged me in a brief discussion about comedic writing!
The obligatory tie-in to standup comedy
Stand-up comedy’s instantaneous audience feedback is both its best and worst feature. You go up on stage, tell your joke, and then either bask in the warm glow of triumph (“I killed”) or endure soul-flaying rejection (“I died”). It’s thrilling, and visceral, and often quite bewildering — and always, always immediate.
In contrast, Rick and Gene talked about how it’s difficult to get feedback on the humorous parts of their books and TV shows. The mass market audience is at the other end of the media spectrum from live performances; it’s enormously broad, but it has no way of giving feedback on specific jokes. How many of the millions of people who see the Oslo special will laugh at the wry aside about the Norwegian military? It could be a hundred… or a hundred thousand.
And then there’s the process delay with book publishing and TV production, in which it takes months or even years to close the feedback loop with the audience…
Presenting or screening their work before a live audience is an excellent way to reap the benefits of both, and Rick does a lot of public speaking. He’s not a comedian, of course, but his classes and presentations are full of funny observations delivered in a natural, spontaneous-seeming style — which is to say that in addition to his superb craftsmanship with language, Rick Steves is a talented performer, too. The quasi-illusion of conversational delivery is one of the crucial Ingredients of Funny, and it’s way harder than it looks.2
A brief note about how Rick Steves changed my life
Measured by a ratio of dollars spent to enjoyment received, the three Rick Steves travel guides that I carried across Europe might be the greatest investment I’ve ever made. Seriously, they’re that valuable just for all the sightseeing pointers you could ever want: stuff like “avoid this, make sure to see that,” and so on.
But on a more fundamental level, reading about and then living Rick’s travel philosophy changed how I think about my interactions with the world around me. His attitude on traveling in foreign lands is remarkably similar to Impov’s Rule #1: “Always say ‘Yes!’”
Very crudely summarized, he encourages an attitude of cheerful adventurousness, urging travelers to celebrate cultural differences, plunge into the unknown, and welcome temporary discomfort as an opportunity for growth. Or as he likes to say: “Fear is for people who don’t get out much.”
The only downside to the whole wonderful experience was a faux pas I made after Rick introduced me to Gene. It quickly passed, but will be a fun story to flagellate myself with some other day…
- As with the Bellingham “International” Airport, the token participation of a few Canucks apparently qualifies something as a globe-bestriding colossus. [↩]
- It’s probably best not to dwell on how talented Rick is in so many different areas, because people like that are frankly a little bit annoying. [↩]